Classic Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ve spent the past few years reading (okay, mostly listening to audiobooks) through a long list of classic science fiction novels (more on that at the end of the year), but I’ve put off reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale almost to the end of that list because I didn’t think I would like it very much. With my limited knowledge of the subject matter, it really didn’t sound like it would be up my alley. But I finally read it, and I have to say, it’s a lot better than I expected.

(Note that I haven’t seen the Hulu series. This review is only about the book.)

Before I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I had the impression that it was anti-Christian propaganda. Granted, the people shouting this the loudest are all to my political right, so you might want to take that with a grain of salt. But as a Christian, when you hear that the book is about a dystopian, theocratic state that claims to quote the Bible, but engages in extremely un-Christian practices like keeping concubines (though they deny that’s what the Handmaids are), you kind of have to wonder.

But having read it, I am confident in saying The Handmaid’s Tale is not anti-Christian. It becomes abundantly clear early on in the story that Gilead, the dictatorship that has overthrown the U.S. government, is not genuinely Christian, as Atwood herself has said in the past, and is opposed to all mainstream Christians, even conservative ones like Baptists. Moreover, Atwood, though an agnostic, herself, praises the values of Christianity as Jesus taught it, and she has specifically said that her book is not meant to be anti-religious. Instead, it’s a statement (and a thought experiment) about totalitarianism, just like most of the other dystopias. And you don’t have to take my word for it; my Catholic readers may be interested in this review written by a friar who comes to the same conclusion. And it’s a pretty good book, too.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

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Book Review: How To by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe, writer of the popular xkcd webcomic has released his latest book, How To. I previously reviewed his book, What If? which gave scientific answers to absurd questions submitted by readers. I also wrote a series of posts answering questions from that book that Randall declined to answer. (Start here if you want to read them.)

How To is sort of the opposite of What If? Instead of serious answers to absurd questions, it gives absurd answers to serious questions (although both are powered by science). For example, Chapter 1 is titled, “How to Jump Really High.” Randall suggests getting a sailplane and jumping off a mountain for best results. And things get plenty weirder than that.

I was hoping How To would have some unanswered questions that I could follow up on like I did with my “What If? Rejects” series, but sadly, it doesn’t. The closest it comes is a few how-tos in the form of comic strips that are scattered throughout the book, but even those don’t leave a whole lot to add.

Even so, I enjoyed the book. It had a lot of the same absurdist humor and interesting scientific trivia as What If? and even though it’s not quite as good, it’s still a pretty fun read, and if you’re a fan of xkcd, I definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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The Evolution Debate: Beneficial Mutations

No, this isn’t actually a mutation, but it does illustrate the point.

In the creationism-evolution debate, one of the most common creationist talking points is that random mutation cannot be the driving force behind evolution, either because it is too unlikely to happen by random chance, or because mutations can’t make any substantive changes to lifeforms. Now, this ignores the fact that evolution doesn’t have a “direction” or “goal” in mind that mutations must fulfill, but that’s really irrelevant. The underlying point, as it is usually formulated, is a very clear assertion that evolution is impossible in principle because random mutation just can’t do it.

This point really comes in two parts:

“There are no beneficial mutations,” AND “Mutations can never add information to the genetic code.”

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The Evolution Debate: Transitional Fossils

Not a transitional fossil.

According to proponents of evolution, PRATTs are Points Refuted a Thousand Times—arguments by creationists against evolution that are easily refuted, yet keep coming up again and again. I’ve dissected a few of them so far to try to figure out what underlying misconceptions make them so hard to get rid of. Sometimes, it’s vague or unclear language that lets them sidestep the counterarguments, so if you want a more productive debate, you have to be very precise about your language. In the case of micro- versus macro-evolution, creationists mainly say that evolution is unbelievable or unreasonable. In that case, I feel like the way to move forward is to shift the argument from the facts to the plausibility of evolution’s claims so that it can’t be dismissed so easily.

Now, it’s time to get into the actual evidence for evolution and tackle perhaps the biggest, most widely used, and most bitterly debated PRATT in this field:

“There are no transitional fossils.”

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The Evolution Debate: Micro v. Macro

I’m slowly moving forward with my series about evolution. In my previous posts, here and here, I’ve tried to explore why debates between evolution and creationism are so unproductive. One thing I’ve noticed is people on both sides of the debates being sloppy with their language and poking holes in their opponents’ arguments that wouldn’t have appeared with more careful wording.

Today, I want to follow on from my second post and get into the substance of the debate, addressing specific, often over-played points that Creationists bring up. The argument I want to dissect today is:

Microevolution is real (or real science), but macroevolution is not.”

Or, as Creation Today puts it, out of the six different “meanings” of evolution, “[only] micro-evolution has anything to do with real science.”

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Book Review: Shadow of the Conqueror by Shad M. Brooks

If you haven’t heard of Shad Brooks, you should really check him out. He’s probably best known for his YouTube channel, Shadiversity, where he talks about all kinds of medieval swords, castles, fantasy literature, and related topics. Though an engineer by trade, he is amazingly knowledgeable about medieval armament, and I’ve learned things from him that are useful even in science fiction writing.

However, Shad isn’t just an engineer and a medieval enthusiast. He has written a fantasy novel of his own, relying on his extensive knowledge. Shadow of the Conqueror, Book 1 of The Chronicles of Everfall, is now available for sale on Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, and probably others. Everfall offers a unique fantasy world that isn’t like anything I’ve seen in total, but includes brilliant worldbuilding, authentic historical lifestyles, and some of the favorite fantasy tropes reconstructed in a rigorous way.

Now, I’ll admit, the book had a rough start. Shad’s exposition felt stilted and forced for maybe the first five chapters—more like he was explaining his world in one of his videos than actually telling a story in it. (And his dialogue could use a bit of work, too.) I much prefer stories that throw you in the deep end and tell you only what the characters see, leaving you to piece things together from the context. It can be tricky to pull off, but when it’s done well, it makes you feel like you’re really there. I don’t think Shad needed to go all the way there, but showing rather than telling at the beginning would have been a big help.

But for all that, once you get through the first few chapters, Shadow of the Conqueror is a pretty good story from then on. I was worried at first, but it really picked up by the end.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Spoilers Below.

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Essay: Harry Potter Theory: What Was Dumbledore’s Actual Plan?

The Harry Potter series is one of the most beloved stories of this generation, but it’s not without its flaws. J. K. Rowling is a very good storyteller, but not a very good world-builder, and the closer you look at her stories, the more plot holes you see, and the end of Deathly Hallows has always been especially difficult for me to understand. For one, it’s not entirely clear what actually happened—why, exactly, Harry survived and how he later won—but there’s a deeper problem. I have a hard time understanding what Albus Dumbledore was thinking, because Harry’s victory, which Dumbledore ostensibly prepared him for, seemed to leave far, far too much to chance to ever work.

Dumbledore gets a lot of criticism for his actions over the course of the series. Many fans even go so far as to suggest (as Snape did) that he was acting maliciously in his treatment of Harry. “[Y]ou have been raising him like a pig for slaughter,” Snape says (DH Ch.33), but on that, I disagree. I think it’s clear that Dumbledore didn’t know a lot of important things until late in the game. Voldemort had him on the back foot, and he was searching for answers that might not exist.

However, by careful examination of the last books of the series, I think we can piece together Dumbledore’s real plan. Since I’m a big-time Potter fan, in honor of Harry Potter’s 39th birthday, I’ve written an essay where I analyze Dumbledore’s plan to defeat Voldemort throughout the books. I’ve decided to post it directly to my Essays Page because it’s pretty long, and it doesn’t break down into separate posts very well, but I still wanted to link it from my main blog so my regular readers could see it.

Click here to read the whole thing.

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